British Museum Object Names Thesaurus


Rules for Compilation of the Thesaurus
Working Party
List of Top Terms for the Object Names Thesaurus
Alphabetical listing with relationships:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
Simple list of terms:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z
Note on This Version


A Collections Data Management Section (CDMS) Working Party was set up in the 1980s to analyse the terms used to record object names in the British Museum, and to incorporate them into an on-line thesaurus. Hierarchical and other standard thesaural relationships were added, as well as explanatory notes where appropriate. The thesaurus architecture is based on ISO 2788.

Curatorial advice has been sought at all stages of the project, and a number of publications were consulted, which are listed in the bibliography. Members of the Working Party also contributed extensively to the Museum Documentation Association (mda) Terminology Working Group and to the mda Archaeological Objects Thesaurus Working Party. The initial entries were generated from the object name indexes to the databases, consisting of terms taken from a variety of documentary sources (such as registers, file cards and catalogues). Hence the terms in the thesaurus are not full descriptions of the objects; these are entered in the Description field.

The thesaurus reflects the nature of the British Museum collections, and was originally set up as an internal reference tool. Some areas of terminology may be more specific than others, depending on the level of documentation available, or the size of particular collections. As with other British Museum thesauri, the Object Names Thesaurus incorporates the following types of relationships and status indicators:

PT: Preferred Term. Terms are PT by default.

NP: Non-Preferred Term (terms with no hierarchical relationships but which may have Related Terms). Examples include alternative spellings. As a rule, Non-preferred Terms are not entered in the Object Name field, but should be present in the Description field.

BT: Broad Term (a PT may have more than one BT).

NT: Narrow Term (a PT may have more than one NT).

RT: Related Term (as a rule, terms are related to record unexpected associations).

TT: Top Terms (the highest levels of classification).

TE: Temporary Terms (terms awaiting discussion by the Working Party and possible incorporation into the thesaurus).

Scope Note: Explanatory notes providing brief definitions or clarifying the usage of terms.

The choice of Top Terms and Broad Terms was determined by common retrieval enquiries and by the nature of the British Museum's collections, and includes functional object name categories (e.g. vessel) as well as those referring to an activity (e.g. dance equipment) or concept (e.g. religious/ritual equipment). The addition of the word 'equipment' allows for object names describing ancillary equipment to be included in each category. Thus for example, the music equipment hierarchy incorporates music-book as well as musical instrument.

The Thesaurus is essentially hierarchical (ie. the relationships are mainly Broad and Narrow). Although there are numerous Related Term links, they do not occur when terms share a Broad Term, or begin with the same stem (e.g. door-jamb, door-fitting, etc.) A feature of the British Museum data entry procedures is the use of multiple keywords and therefore, where appropriate, more than one object name may be entered in that field. Multiple keywording may be necessary for several reasons, such as indicating uncertainty, dual-functionality, and re-use of objects. It will be treated in more detail under individual sections in the Rules, but an important application is to indicate an activity or concept relating to an object, which is not automatically covered by its hierarchy in the thesaurus. For example, arrow has the Broad Term ammunition in the Thesaurus, but if an arrow is used in a ceremonial context, the association should be indicated in the object record by keywording religious/ritual equipment in addition to arrow.

Retrievals on a few Top Terms, particularly those reflecting very broad associations or concepts (such as funerary or religious) will be less comprehensive than expected for certain collections. For example, most of the collections in Egyptian Antiquities have a funerary context, but a retrieval on funerary equipment will not reflect this, since it will essentially call up records with object names which are by their nature 'funerary' (e.g. coffin) and which are therefore part of the funerary equipment category, and, to a lesser extent, records to which this Top Term has been added to mark the contextual use of an object. A similar situation arises for religious/ritual equipment in relation to the collections of Hindu figures and sculpture in the Department of Oriental Antiquities.

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Rules for Compilation of the Thesaurus


As a rule, the singular form of the name should be entered, unless the plural reflects common usage (e.g. scissors, trousers) or provides a distinction between different objects (e.g. compass and compasses).


Hyphens have been used extensively in the thesaurus. They usually indicate a 'for' relationship (e.g. spear-rest) or dual-function objects (e.g. axe-adze).

Apostrophes have been used in rare instances, either when conforming to the OED (e.g. Jew's harp) or in a few cases, to indicate an association which could not be otherwise denoted (e.g. potter's wheel).


Where spelling variants occur, one form has been chosen as the Preferred Term (PT), the others as Non-Preferred Terms (NPs).

Where available, foreign (or accented) characters have been used in object name terms. In such cases, versions with the equivalent standard characters have been included as NPs to facilitate searches in the thesaurus.

Separated parts or fragments of objects

As a rule, the thesaurus does not include terms for specific parts of objects, such as cup-handle, etc., as separated parts of known objects are entered under the name of the whole object (e.g. cup). This allows for consistent recording of the object names for all records referring to a particular object, whether the parts have been separated or not. Full descriptions of objects (or remaining parts) are entered in the Description field.

One of the most important applications of this rule concerns sherds, for which the user is recommended to enter the term vessel or its Narrow Terms as an object name, the term sherd being retained in the Description.

Exceptions occur for the following reasons:


An increasing number of Narrow Terms describing objects of specific use or function are available on the thesaurus, such as sake-bowl, coffee-spoon, etc. Only genuine terms for specific types of objects are allowed as Preferred Terms in the thesaurus, following the OED or curatorial advice. Purely descriptive terms are retained in the Description.

Dual-function objects and re-use of objects

In certain cases, dual-function objects have specific names (e.g. axe-adze). However, if there is no such recognised term, or if an object has been re-used for an alternative function, more than one object name should be entered. Thus if a vase has been re-used as a lamp, the following would be entered:

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Foreign terms

When use of a foreign term is accepted practice, it has been entered as a Preferred Term. An English equivalent occurs as a Broad Term or Related Term, where possible.


Each term in a thesaurus must be unique, so homonyms are distinguished by qualifiers, and clarified by means of relationships to other terms, and by Scope Notes. For example, the different definitions of pipe have been accommodated by qualifiers, such as smoking-pipe, musical pipe, etc.

Remains, samples and artefacts

Raw materials intended for manufacture should be entered as animal remains, vegetal remains or sample (as appropriate). In all these cases, and for food product as well, the specific materials (e.g. bird tissue, sugar) should be entered in the Materials field.

Sets and other collective nouns

As a rule, the thesaurus does not include collective nouns such as bunch, bundle, etc. Exceptions include terms which are considered to be significant for retrieval purposes, such as sets (e.g.: tea-set). These terms should be entered in the object records in addition to the terms for the components.

e.g. chess-set

Models and toys

As a rule, compound terms have not been created for specific toys or models. The terms model or toy should be entered in addition to the terms for the objects which they represent (if known).

e.g. model
or: toy
or: model

The only exceptions to this rule are the terms model group, which was designated for models depicting scenes of activity (such as beer-making) or ensembles such as a boat with people on it, and model building/structure for models of any type of building or structure.

As there is some overlap between the terms model and figure, they are Related Terms (RTs) on the thesaurus, and users are advised to consult both categories. The term figure is used for animate subjects, and the term model for inanimate subjects.

Replicas, casts, reproductions, etc.

Previously classed as 'status' terms, fake, cast, replica, etc. are now included in the Object Names Thesaurus under the Top Term (TT) production/replication. They should be keyworded in the object record in addition to any other appropriate object name term.

e.g. replica

Miscellaneous Equipment

This Top Term is effectively a catch-all for terms which cannot be accommodated in other categories. The Working Party decided that some of the terms included in this category (such as board, stick, etc.) were too general to function as Broad Terms, so for example stick is not a Broad Term for walking-stick. Conversely, where a term is thought to warrant Narrow Terms for retrieval purposes, such as stand, the Narrow Terms will appear (directly or via a Broad Term) under a specific category as well as miscellaneous equipment. Thus for example, lamp-stand is a Narrow Term of stand and of lighting equipment.


The terms textile and cloth have been used interchangeably in manual documentation and hence computer records in the British Museum, and have no direct links with other terms in the Object Names Thesaurus (for example those in the costume hierarchy) which are also regarded as 'textiles'. To ensure a comprehensive retrieval of textiles, the term textile has also been included in the Materials thesaurus where it is a Broad Term for all textile terms.

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Aitchinson, Jean & Gilchrist, Alan. Thesaurus Construction - A Practical Manual, 2nd edition, Aslib, 1987.

British Standards Institution. Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri (BS 5723), 1979.

Fleming, Honour & Pevsner. The Penguin Dictionary of Architecture, 1991.

J. Paul Getty Trust. Art & Architecture Thesaurus, 2nd ed., 5 vols., Oxford University Press, New York, 1994 (on behalf of the Gettty Art History Program.

Griffiths, Antony. Prints & Printmaking, 2nd Edition, 1996.

International Organization for Standardization. Documentation - Guidelines for the establishment and development of monolingual thesauri (ISO 2788), 2nd edition, 1986.

Museum Documentation Association. Guidelines for constructing a Museum Object Name Thesaurus, compiled by Stuart Holm, Cambridge, 1993.

Several editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, including The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, OUP, 1986.

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Working Party

Working Party (1999): Sandor Burslem, Hadrian Ellory-van Dekker, Michael Downing, Ruth Parkinson, Jane Stirling, Tanya Szrajber (Chair), Helen Worthy.

Former contributors: Dawn Abercromby, Barry Ager, Alison Allden, Malcolm Chapman, Jane Dargue, Jill Holmen, Julie Hudson, Brenda Knockton, Jill Ravenscroft.

With thanks to all members of staff who contributed ideas, to Dr. Sheridan Bowman for supporting the project, to David McCutcheon and Dr. Peter Main for general comments, and to James Tullett and Gordon McKenna for technical advice and assistance.

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List of Top Terms for the Object Names Thesaurus

The following are not mutually exclusive:

agricultural/subsistence (includes agricultural equipment, gathering equipment, hunting equipment, fishing equipment, irrigation equipment)
animal equipment (includes equestrian equipment)
animal/vegetal remains (includes human remains)
architecture (includes hydraulic equipment)
childcare equipment
communications equipment (includes art/writing equipment, audio/visual equipment)
component (includes fixture/fitting)
container (includes vessel)
costume (includes personal accessory)
culinary equipment
fire/fire-lighting equipment
food product
games/sporting equipment
lighting equipment
miscellaneous equipment (includes ornament)
performance arts (includes dance equipment, music equipment)
personal ornament (includes jewellery)
production/replication (includes cobbling equipment, jewellery-making equipment, pottery-making equipment, tool/implement, textile crafts)
religious/ritual equipment (includes ceremonial equipment [np],circumcision equipment, divination equipment, incense equipment, marriage equipment, offering equipment)
science/medicine (includes circumcision equipment, horological equipment, medical/medicine equipment, surgical equipment)
social control equipment
stimulant/narcotic equipment (includes alcohol equipment, betel equipment, coffee equipment, lime equipment, opium equipment, smoking equipment, snuff equipment, tea equipment tobacco equipment)
toilet/cosmetic equipment (includes tattooing equipment)
visual representation

Note on This Version

Within this version of the thesaurus the use of an '' indicates an hypertext link to another term

© Trustees of The British Museum, 1999.
You may freely download this page for non-profit use, but must acknowledge the Trustees in any output in which it is used.
The Trustees acknowledge the work of MDA (now Collections Trust) in converting this resource for use on the Web.